"Five Things" is a season-long series presented by the Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center that highlights the top storylines and players to watch ahead of each match. To visit the series archive, click here.
The race for first place in the Western Conference will continue in earnest Wednesday as second-place Sporting Kansas City (9-4-3, 30 points) visits fifth-place LAFC (6-5-5, 23 points) at Banc of California Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 9:30 p.m. CT with live coverage on Bally Sports Kansas City Plus, Bally Sports Midwest Plus, BallySports.com, the Bally Sports app, Sports Radio 810 WHB and La Grande 1340 AM.
As two of the West's perennial title contenders, Sporting and LAFC most recently met on June 26 when Sporting posted a dramatic 2-1 comeback victory at Children's Mercy Park. LAFC have shown signs of gaining steam in recent weeks, however, and could pull within four points of Sporting with a win on Wednesday.
In the space below, we examine five major storylines surrounding the tasty midweek matchup.
1. Nearing Full Strength
Sporting have competed at or near the top of the West despite the fact that numerous players have missed action through injury or international duty. Entering Wednesday's trip to Los Angeles, however, only two players are ruled out or questionable: midfielder Felipe Hernandez will be absent for personal reasons, while fellowing Sporting KC Academy product Cam Duke is day-to-day with a hamstring issue.
Elsewhere, Gold Cup champion Gianluca Busio and runner-up Alan Pulido have concluded their Gold Cup commitments with the United States and Mexico, respectively. Pulido has been brilliant when available this season, tallying six goals and an assist with starts in eight of 11 appearances.
2. Thick and Fast
Wednesday marks the start of a frantic stretch that will see Sporting play six matches in 18 days. This week proves particularly difficult with road trips to LAFC and the fourth-place Colorado Rapids on the horizon. Following a Leagues Cup quarterfinal clash against Club Leon on Aug. 10, Sporting will travel to FC Dallas (Aug. 14), host the Portland Timbers (Aug. 18) and trek to Minnesota United FC (Aug. 21).
This congested run marks the first time that Sporting has played six times in 18 days since Feb. 28 to March 17 in 2019, when Manager Peter Vermes' men juggled the start of the regular season with the Concacaf Champions League.
3. Success in the Series
Sporting have won three of five regular season meetings against LAFC all-time, including a 2-1 comeback victory on June 26 at Children's Mercy Park. After Kim Moon-Hwan gave the visitors an early lead, Sporting rallied in the second half with goals from Pulido and Salloi to claim victory. Salloi's late winner was one of many 2021 highlights for the 25-year-old winger, who leads MLS with 13 combined goals (nine) and primary assists (four).
It should be noted that Sporting leads MLS this season with 17 points gained from losing positions, eight more than any other team. On the flipside, LAFC have made a habit of coughing up leads, as their 14 points dropped from winning positions are the most in MLS.
4. Academy in Action
When Salloi assisted Johnny Russell's goal in a 2-1 home loss to FC Dallas on Saturday, Sporting's talented crop of Academy products extended a collective streak that cannot be overlooked. Dating back to May 16, during a stretch in which Sporting has posted a 7-2-2 record, Academy products have scored or assisted in a remarkable 11 consecutive MLS matches. That impressive haul includes production from Salloi, Duke, Hernandez, Gianluca Busio and Jaylin Lindsey.
5. Vela Catching Fire
No MLS player has scored more goals (59) or contributed more combined goals and assists (96) than LAFC superstar forward Carlos Vela. The prolific Mexican navigated injury problems at the start of 2021, something that factored into his team's slow start, but the dynamic attacker has hit full form over the last fortnight with goals in four straight games.
Complementing Vela are Diego Rossi, the reigning MLS Golden Boot winner with 47 goals over the last four seasons, and unsung midfielder Jose Cifuentes, who has scored or assisted in seven of his last nine appearances. Head coach Bob Bradley's side has yet to fire on all cylinders this year, but they inarguably remain one of the league's most dangerous teams.